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Metro suburbs no longer lead population growth, latest Census data show

Home-building-construction 620The suburbs on the edge of the state’s big metro areas are no longer the places to move – at least not at the rate in the past.

New figures May 20 from the U.S. Census Bureau show the big population shifts are occurring farther and farther out.

“There’s a fairly steady progression outward of the ring of growth,” said Tom Rex, an economist at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

For example, he said, Chandler used to be one of the boom communities. A decade ago it was growing at a rate in the range of 6 percent a year.

Yet the latest numbers covering the year ending this past July 1 show it adding only 3,882 new residents.

That translates out to just a 1.6 percent increase.

Chandler did manage to hang on to its 4th place status – but just barely. Gilbert is moving up fast, adding 8,662 residents to post a one-year growth rate of 3.8 percent.

That was also good enough to knock Glendale out of the No. 5 slot.

But Rex said even Gilbert has to watch its back.

“Now you’re moving out, for instance, into Queen Creek,” he said. That town managed to boost the number of residents by 8.1 percent in the last year along, the highest in the state; its population is up more than 21 percent since 2010.

The same situation is playing out along the western edge of the Phoenix area, with Buckeye growing 4.5 percent and Goodyear adding 3.8 percent.

And the rest of the state?

“The Tucson area has been pretty much dead in the water since the recession,” Rex said.

The city grew by an anemic 1,450 new residents in the 12-month period, posting a 0.3 percent growth rate. And its population has increased by only 1.3 percent since the beginning of the decade.

How slow is the growth? Marana, which is less than a tenth of the size of Tucson, actually added more people.

Those 1,540 new residents were enough for it to post the sixth highest year-over-year growth rate at 4 percent. Since the decade began, its population is up 14.9 percent.

Even Sahuarita managed to grow by nearly 600, or 2.2 percent

Yet the closer-in suburbs, including the large unincorporated area of Pima County, managed a growth rate of only 0.7 percent.

Economist George Hammond at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona said the numbers are not surprising. And the key is what’s been happening in Washington, particularly the decision in Congress to balance the budget through “sequestration,” automatic cuts shared almost equally in both civilian and military spending.

“The federal government is a much bigger share of economic activity in Pima (County) than it is Maricopa or for the state as a whole,” he said. Hammond said that affected not only the number of civilians employed by the federal government but also in procurement: what the government buys from private vendors, from simple supplies to missiles.

“That procurement spending fell roughly a third between 2012 and 2013,” Hammond said. “It remains low … about the level it was in 2013.”

What has slowed growth to a crawl in Pima County has actually put Cochise County into negative numbers. Hardest hit is Sierra Vista.

The Census Bureau reports the city lost 1,315 residents in the one year period. That 2.90 percent decline dropped its population to below 44,000.

“It’s related to Fort Huachuca and sequestration,” said City Manager Charles Potucek.

He said city officials work to ensure that members of Congress understand the importance of the fort. But at the same time, Potucek he said there are efforts underway to diversify the area’s economy,

On the plus side, he said the community’s location near Mexico helps attract shoppers from south of the border. And he said a new 100-bed hospital should help keep patients – and the staff to support it – getting their care locally and prevent “leakage” to facilities in Tucson.

But he acknowledged that the location also presents “challenges,” being miles off the interstate highways system and having no rail service.

The economic problems go beyond Sierra Vista: Every incorporated Cochise County community shed people, as did the unincorporated area, albeit not at a rate as fast as Sierra Vista.

Problems of flat or declining population are not limited to Cochise County.

Eloy lost 260 residents during the year, translating to a 1.5 percent decline, with Nogales close behind at 259 fewer residents. And a lot of other communities posted negative numbers including the western Arizona communities of Somerton, Parker and Quartzsite as well as rural towns like St. Johns, Eagar, Globe and Miami.

One curious outlier is Florence where the Census Bureau said population rose 1,485 in the last year. But state Demographer Qigui Chang said there’s less there than meets the eye.

He said the population of the Pinal County community is governed by what happens at the prison complex located within its limits. And he said that varies wildly from ear to year.

For example, his 2013 numbers showed a drop of more than 1,500. Chang said all that is borne out in the longer-term figures which show the latest population figures virtually identical to what they were in 2010.

One urban metropolitan area that has bucked the trend is Tempe which managed to boost its population by 2.3 percent despite the fact it is landlocked and has no place to grow out. But Rex said the city has found a new direction.

“The downtown area is growing up,” he said. And he has seen the proof.

“Just outside my office come August there’ll be a new apartment complex opening up of several hundred units,” Rex said. “Right there you’re probably going to have 1,500 more people.

Rex said much of the growth is driven by the university and enrollment growth

One other issue of note: Even with adding 24,616 new residents, the Census Bureau figures Phoenix still trails Philadelphia which gained only 4,245 new residents. At this rate it will take at least another year, if not longer, for Phoenix to get to No. 5 nationally.

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